LAHORE: On the third floor of Atif mansion in Royal Park Lahore, Ustad Jahangir gets his canvas, colour palate and brushes out, mixes paints and starts finishing the purple colored dress of a woman in a scene from Heer Ranjha.
Film posters. This is what the artist does when he gets time off from his paying side gig – preparing posters of Punjab’s wrestlers.
Once upon a time in Lollywood
Ustaad Jahangir was a commercial artist of film posters during the peak years of Pakistan’s film industry. Although the last film poster Jahangir worked on was in 1992 on a Shamim Ara flick, Munda Bigra Jaye, he is still based in Royal Park.
Once the hub of the film industry in Lahore, where hundreds of producers, directors and distributors including the poster painters were established, Royal Park looks deserted now. What was once a hustle bustle world of over two hundred offices tied to the film industry now bears a bleak look; only a handful of film hoardings and few offices remain. The fate of the art work created by commercial artists for film posters has followed the same trajectory as that of the dying Pakistani film industry.
“It is society’s loss” says Jahangir. “There were many good artists in Royal Park; they’re spending life of helplessness and despair now. By God, it makes me so sad.”
In these hard times, the artist’s only solace comes from his trade. Trained in the basics of water colour painting by Ustaad Allah Bux, Jahangir acquired the art of film poster painting from the best: Ustaad Mustafa Chughtai. Known as the man who pioneered the art of painting posters in Pakistan, Chughtai left his thriving poster painting career in Mumbai and moved back to his hometown Lahore to continue his work with the industry here. Jahangir has some copies of the vintage posters painted by his teacher Mustafa Chughtai – pieces he considers his personal treasure.
The Chugtai line
Not very far from the Royal Park, Rafiq Chughtai, the son of Mustafa Chughtai, sits at his office in Nisbat Road. A graduate of Punjab University’s fine arts program and a renowned former poster artist, Rafiq reminisces about the days when the late Waheed Murad called him “a genius” for his poster of Murad’s first Punjabi film “Mastana Mahi.”
In that golden era, a bright and exaggerated beauty had come to define the signature of Pakistani film posters.
“The heroine of the film had to look exquisite in the poster. It was necessary because everything and everybody in the film revolves around her from the hero to the villain…so we used to make sure she looked more beautiful than reality,” says Chugtai.
Veteran movie director and producer Aslam Dar has similar memories of that bygone era. Having spent 62 years in Pakistan’s film industry with directing credit for the likes of
Zubaida, Dil Lagi, Dara and Basheera, Dar fondly recalls that, “It was expected that the poster artist would capture the soul of the film in the poster.”
Paying homage to the likes of Mustafa Chughtai, Dar felt that, “The poster makers of that era were stellar, they were true artists. It was an intensely creative process that demanded deep imagination.”
Fond memories are however, overshadowed by today’s reality.
“The tragedy of our work is that it was commercial, so nobody, not even the artists could preserve it,” Chugtai laments.
“The Arts Councils of Lahore should have made a concentrated effort to preserve this slice of cinema history, and made an effort to exhibit this work.”
Back among canvas and paint
Ustaad Jahangir is most animated when he talks about the thrill of preparing a new poster for a local blockbuster.
“It would take 20 to 30 days to complete one poster,” he remembers fondly.
“When shooting for the film would be completed, producers would then give us artists an album of still photographs (of the movie) to choose from. Then we would rework the photographs as sketches, out of which the directors and producers would then select the best one to be made into a poster.”
In those days, the film poster was of paramount importance, being the primary promotional material for the film after its release. The competition in the industry from the 50s to the 70s was such that poster designs were strictly guarded. Artwork by the likes of Noor-ud-Din Azad, Sardar S. Khan and Akhtar Sahib were considered the key to success.
With time and technology, poster art evolved. The method of lithography where colour separation was done manually was left behind when in the late 1960s Packages Limited and Pakistan Times Press introduced off-set printing for posters in Lahore. Photo separation units were installed and the print quality of hand painted posters became sharper. This evolution resulted in the emergence of graphic design in posters by the 90s, where photos were exposed on flex sheets, with additional finishing being done manually by the artist before the final print. But by this time, the film industry was crumbling, and the creativity seen in the earlier years of hand painted posters did not shine through in the new, graphic work.
As of now, pop art continues to draw inspiration from film poster art, but the artists who defined the style are rarely credited, rarely acknowledged and now – rarely seen in the haunts of Royal Park.
More in Life & StyleManto: The unmatched craftsman who strips life of its illusions